Amidst the wave of regional normalization with Bashar al-Assad, a former Israeli official has called on the Israeli government to conclude a peace agreement and normalization with Bashar al-Assad imminently, despite the catastrophic circumstances that Syria is enduring.
Gideon Biger, a member of the Israeli delegation to the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, wrote an article published in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Tuesday. In the piece, Biger explained the option of normalization with the Assad regime, as well as the benefits that both sides stand to gain.
Biger called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to send his foreign minister, Eli Cohen, for confidential meetings with officials from the Assad regime, as well as from the Middle East and Europe, and not to waste the opportunity.
The Israeli official said that it is hard to ignore the intersection of interests between Israel and Assad. He suggested forging “peace with Syria now.”
Gideon Biger is a geographer, historian, and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. He participated in the secret round of negotiations between Farouk al-Sharaa, the former Syrian foreign minister, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister in West Virginia. These negotiations became known as the 1999 Shepherdstown talks.
Discussion in Israel of normalization with Assad comes in light of the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, who established negotiations with Hafez al-Assad during his first term as prime minister (1996-1999). In 2010, Netanyahu expressed his willingness to meet with Bashar al-Assad, but those circumstances changed with the outbreak of protests in Syria.
Biger’s call also coincides with a wave of regional normalization towards Bashar Assad’s regime, most recently through the accelerated Turkish rapprochement with it.
The Israeli official defended his proposal by saying: “I have not lost my mind! I say to those who dismiss the idea — and ask, why are you now proposing peace with Syria? — that the idea is not ridiculous.”
“In my opinion, and I am not alone, the idea is both achievable and necessary. And all remaining obstacles can be overcome in exchange for Israeli gains from normalization.”
Biger highlighted the “catastrophic” situation in Syria, which is still suffering from war and divided into spheres of influence divided between the regime — backed by Russia and Iran; the Turkish-backed opposition; and Israel. The latter freely attacks Syrian territory. In addition, Syria faces a refugee crisis, the destruction of cities, a collapsing economy and international isolation.
Gains for both parties
According to Biger, if a peace agreement is signed with Assad, the regime and Israel will reap many gains. These include the departure of the Iranians and Russians from Syria, the reconstruction of Syria and the rehabilitation of the Syrian economy through the flow of European and American grants. And thus Assad will reduce his spending on the military and weapons, rehabilitate his regime, and change its political orientation.
Biger explains that the roots of the conflict with Syria lie in Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights; accordingly, Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan is key to the solution.
The Israeli official notes that four former Israeli prime ministers agreed in principle to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace with Damascus: Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.
Hafez al-Assad and Barak came close to signing an agreement to this effect in the summer of 2000 in Geneva under the auspices of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Barak’s hesitation was the reason for the Geneva conference’s failure in its final moments more than two decades ago. Meanwhile, U.S. and Israeli reports suggest that Hafez al-Assad’s illness — which was identified as dementia — was the reason for the negotiations’ failure.
According to the Israeli official, Israel will only be able to achieve peace with Assad by withdrawing from the Golan Heights and evacuating some 30,000 settlers.
“There is no doubt that the withdrawal will be a great shock in Israeli circles,” he wrote. “But we have been through such experiences before, including the withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip.”
As outlined by Biger, Israel’s primary gains would be removing the threat on the northern front from Hezbollah and the regime’s army; preventing Iran from cementing itself in Syria; and reducing the military burden in Israel, allowing resources to be diverted elsewhere.
Calling for normalization with Assad, the Israeli official notes that Netanyahu will succeed in this move if he secretly uses Israeli experts on Syria, such as Professor Eyal Zisser, who knows Bashar al-Assad better than most Syrians; Professor Itamar Rabinowitz, who has already held talks with the Syrians; and Major-General Sagi, who publicly held the 1999 round of talks.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.